Friday 16 May, 2003

Good morning.  Just over a week until Memorial Weekend and the start of the traditional summer peak travel season.  A recent Harris poll suggests that people will be traveling less this summer, and fewer will be traveling internationally.

Selfishly, I think this is wonderful news!  That means there will be travel bargains galore in Europe, and without the dreadful crowded conditions typical of most summers.  This is an excellent time to travel to Britain and Europe.

NOTE TO AOL READERS :  If you're getting this for the first time and don't remember why, you subscribed to the newsletter some time ago, but a problem with AOL meant that each weekly newsletter was not being received by you.  Hopefully this is now solved.  If you no longer want the newsletter, simply reply and change the subject to 'unsubscribe'.

AOL told me that my link to Joe Brancatelli's site meant they were automatically censoring and deleting my emails without telling either me or the intended recipients.  Some other companies that use the same web hosting service that Joe does are known spammers, so AOL decided to delete any and all email with links to any and all sites hosted by this company.  While they probably perceive this as good service, I'm not so sure!

It seems that a major casualty in the battle against spam are innocent senders and receivers of email.  I received an interesting comment from another subscriber last week, who said, in response to my pointing out newsletters were being bounced back from his company's email server due to being suspected spam :

I apologize for any inconvenience.  There's almost a full-scale revolt going on here because these things keep happening to legitimate business e-mails.  But, in a company of 10,000 people, it takes a while to get things changed (so I apologize in advance if this happens again). I'll put my complaint in the queue today.

This Week's Column :  What To Do When You Lose Your Documents : Sooner or later, you are probably going to lose - or have stolen - your wallet and the valuables contained therein.  In the second of a three part series, this week I give you eleven tips to help minimize the inconvenience should such an event happen to you.

Deathwatch Part 1 - United :  United has ranked at the bottom of the airlines in terms of customer complaints over the past two years.  So, in a piece of good news, they have created a new position, VP of Customer Relations.  And the bad news?  They gave this job to a former CEO of ATA, the airline that has, ooops, been second to bottom of the list of customer complaints!  While this might help UA to move from worst to second worst, it does seem this was not the most imaginative hiring.

Worse still, their new VP, John Tague, said 'This isn't a product that needs to be fixed.  I'm not going in there with a list of 15 things that I think are broken or need to be fixed'.  There are none so blind as those that will not see.....

In truly good news for UA, however, they announced yesterday that in June they will reinstate 162 flights that had been cut earlier this year.  This is an excellent step forward, but, alas, even the good news has some associated bad news.

Their new schedule will result in changes to flight numbers and departure times that will affect more than one million customer bookings.  United has said it will notify affected customers, but I wouldn't guarantee this will consistently happen.  If you're booked to fly with UA any time from June onwards, it might pay to call and reconfirm your bookings in a week or two when the new schedules have all settled into their system.

Deathwatch Part 2 - American :  Will they/won't they declare bankruptcy?  The 'maybe we will, maybe we won't' game continues - some cynics might think that after their success using the threat of bankruptcy as a club to beat their employees with, American is now using the same threat to beat up on their suppliers.  On Thursday AA said in an SEC filing that it may still need to file for Chapter 11.

I'd like to take time out from what often seems like 'airline bashing' to record that there is often a world of difference between the attitudes of the senior executives and the attitudes of front line staff, often wrestling with a near impossible challenge of trying to reconcile company policies with real world concepts of fairness.  While this herculean struggle has seen too many good people lose heart and either leave the industry or just give up trying to go the extra mile for senior management that don't appreciate their efforts, some good people remain.

With that in mind, I got a lovely email from a Customer Service Manager at a large aairport who works for a large aairline.  I won't say which one, but let's just say that he has an excellent aattitude.

No awe inspiring message...just a quick note to tell you that I enjoy your column.  In my work life, I always try to look at things through the eyes of the customer and your column is one way I stay ahead.

For a while UK budget carrier easyJet seemed like it could do no wrong.  But in announcing a 48 million ($77 million) loss for the six months through March, it seems like the easyJet business model is no longer a sure thing.  Interestingly, they enjoyed a 40% rise in passenger numbers, but their average fare dropped 11%, down to $60 - plainly a rate that is just too low to break even with.  But other low fare carriers - especially RyanAir, are not making it easy for easyJet to push its fares up.

As evidence of the crazy lengths the European discount carriers are going to in an attempt to compete with each other, RyanAir's CEO Michael O'Leary, and a group of his staff dressed in army combat gear, tried to carry out a mock military operation against competitor easyJet at England's Luton airport.  But driving into the airport in a tank wasn't a popular move, especially only a couple of days after heightened security in response to the Saudi bombings.  The tank was refused permission to enter the airport grounds.

easyJet's founder, Stelios Haji-Ioannou, is no longer involved in the day to day running of the company.  Instead, he is trying to apply similar principles to 'nothing included, no frills' rental cars (and was offering free car rentals recently - but I wonder how much the insurance was per day!) plus also to cruising.  He has launched a new cruise line, easyCruise, with the first ship to start operations next summer.  Rooms will be very small (90 sq ft) and staff/passenger ratios will be very high (8:1).  Whereas the airline made passengers buy their own food, the cruise line will make passengers buy their own sheets (or bring them with them)!  Rates will be low, but probably not much lower than the best rates on 'full service' cruise lines.  Doesn't sound like a winning idea to me.

This week's Virgin/Concorde news :  Remember the Sherlock Holmes story in which the great detective solves a case because of the clue of the dog that did not bark?  Something similar seems afoot with Sir Richard Branson's campaign to wrest the Concordes away from BA.  I haven't seen a single supporting statement from any other group and the lack of conspicuous support from other groups is becoming increasingly obvious and significant.  With mainstream 'establishment' opinion leaders such as the Daily Telegraph now becoming openly questioning and cynical about his motives, it seems plain that Branson needs to urgently cobble together a coalition of support or else quietly give up his quixotic quest.

One thing that is not so quixotic is his success at creating a new airline in Australia.  His Virgin Blue airline announced its most recent yearly result - an A$158 million (US$101 million) profit before interest and tax costs.  This very positive result is underscored by its achievement of becoming the most profitable operator, per plane, in the world.  On average, Virgin Blue made a US$5.3 million annual EBITDAR profit per plane it flies.  The next most profitable airline (a status shared by JetBlue and RyanAir) earns only $4.8 million per plane.  This is a stunning result by any measure, particularly in a small country dominated by an excellent airline (Qantas).

Reader Maury must be the luckiest person on the planet.  He wrote in last week in reply to my admonition not to buy international fares direct from airlines to say

I disagree with your comment about not calling airline res agents.  Until last year , my wife and I averaged about 2 trips a year overseas.  I retired in 1991 and am always looking for a cheap fare.  I always ask the agent how I can get a lower fare.  Three airline agents referred me to consolidators. They are Olympic, Turkish and Austrian.  Additionally, frequently the agent will suggest I call back at some future date, at which time a sale will be in effect.  Unless you have a VERY SPECIAL travel agent, airline agents are often more helpful. You just have to ask the right question.

His experiences with these three airlines certainly don't mirror most people's experiences with most airlines; indeed, my guess is that if an airline res agent working for one of the US dinosaurs told a caller to call back later, or to go to a consolidator, they'd quickly find themselves out of a job.  Nine times out of ten, it is only a travel agent that will offer that type of advice, and who will shop around the wholesale consolidators for you, and who will also take a note of your name and number and offer to call you back themselves if fares drop.

On the other hand, reader Fred writes about his experiences using travel agents and says :

I used to have an agent in Washington, when I was a journalist. He was excellent, except for one thing. Whenever I wanted to go home and visit my mum, he declined to deal with the booking. Because I had to fly to Regina, and he felt it was a rude word which he didn't wish to use over the phone.

I wonder how Fred's agent feels about selling people seats on the airline with the two letter code VS (the airline now hoping to buy Concorde).....

Boeing has released a new drawing of their proposed '7E7' plane.  Okay, I know it is only an artist's impression, but when I look at the picture and read the comments of Mike Bair, Senior VP of the 7E7program, in which he says 'We (Boeing) are using this concept similar to how automobile designers use concept cars, to stretch our imaginations, to consider new possibilities and to help us design the best possible product for our customer', it makes me fear that functional aircraft design has become subservient to the whims of fashion.

Bair adds that they want to create a plane that people will 'know by sight'.  I think I'd rather settle for a bland design but with comfort inside and safety outside.

By the way, doesn't the 7E7 drawing look as if it only has one, supersize, engine?  Is this one of the new possibilities that the Boeing designers have come up with out of their stretched imaginations?

Boeing also confirmed that airplane deliveries have fallen from 153 in the first four months of 2001 to only 90 this year - a 41% drop.

I'd mentioned several weeks ago about Boeing's unusual request to the Hawaiian Airlines bankruptcy judge to have HA's CEO removed due to concerns about management of the airline.  Hawaiian's board has now offered to remove their CEO.  At the same time, four members of the board who had close ties with the CEO would also resign.  And - a major concession - the company would also give up its exclusive right to propose a plan of reorganization.

It is great to see a measure of accountability, but it is a shame that this action did not occur prior to the Chapter 11 and Boeing's filing.  Needless to say, the $25 million in dubious payments to shareholders that sparked Boeing's filing (and which probably accelerated the airline's fall into Chapter 11) is not being returned back to the company.

Student Scott Dawson at the University of Salford in Manchester (UK not NH) is studying Aerospace Business Systems, and has asked for any readers who are in the airline industry to help his studies by answering a very quick and simple survey at http://intercom.virginia.edu/SurveySuite/Surveys/HRMProject.  If you're in the airline industry, perhaps you could spare a couple of minutes and click on over to his survey and complete it.  He'd surely appreciate it.

The good news?  Part of the latest bailout of the airlines sees the government eliminating the $2.50 per flight passenger security fee from 1 June.  The airlines had told the government that this extra cost of flying was destroying the affordability of air travel and was a major reason why so few people were flying.  So, now that this fee is being removed, what do the major airlines immediately do?  They announce a $10 increase in most airfares, to be effective from the same date!

Alaska Airlines has discovered a horrible new way to reduce its costs.  It has cut back on the number of toll-free phone lines into its frequent flier award redemption center.  In the past, you could call in and always get into the holding queue, although sometimes you'd wait almost an hour to get an agent to take the call.  Now, you call the number and a recorded message says 'all agents are busy, call back later, or book on the web, or call a travel agent <click>' and hangs up on you.  I should point out it is not possible to book their partner airline awards on the internet, and neither can a travel agent do this on behalf of a client, either, making two of their three suggestions worse than useless.

I dialed once every 30 seconds for 20 minutes before getting through last week.  I'd much rather put the call on speakerphone and do other things, rather than have to be seated at the phone, obsessively dialing, waiting, hanging up, redialing, etc, for 20 minutes.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  A United Airlines gate agent at O'Hare gets upset at a traveler and so bans her from flying her flight back home to a long awaited Mother's Day rendezvous with her 5 year old daughter.  The UA rep says that 'he wouldn't feel comfortable allowing her to fly'.  So she tearfully watches the plane leave without her, and is forced to spend the night at O'Hare without any luggage before a kind Northwest Airlines rep helps her home the next day.  Shame on United.

Spot the kicker in the paragraph above?  Yes, the UA gate agent (we don't know his real name because he lied about that) wasn't comfortable allowing the lady to fly home, but apparently was perfectly comfortable breaking the federal regulation that forbids bags flying without passengers.  Double shame on United.

I wrote a review about document pouches several weeks ago.  One of the conveniences they offer is that you can hang them round your neck with your ticket, boarding pass, and ID all on display.  You don't have to worry about losing them or fumbling through your pockets and purses to find them repeatedly.  Reader Louise reports on a recent flight where the security screeners required her to take the pouch off her neck and send it through the X-ray machine.  Why?  Because, the ever alert screener told her, it is possible to secret a razor blade in the pouch.

The screener is of course completely correct.  But it is also possible to hide a razor blade in a jacket pocket, or taped to one's skin, or in one's sock, or in any one of a hundred other places.  Why does the screener insist on selectively x-raying the document pouch, but not then insist we take all our clothes off and put them through the x-ray machine too?

These people have way too much authority and way too little common sense.

Last comment about razor blades.  Now that we have armed air marshals, armed pilots, and bullet-proof crash-through proof $100,000 cockpit doors, would someone please tell me what the deadly danger of a single razor blade might be?

What do Disneyland and Disneyworld have in common with President Bush' ranch and nuclear submarine bases, but not have in common with Seaworld or Universal Studios?

The Disney properties have special permanent 24 hour no-fly zones around them.  No planes can fly above or close to Disneyworld in Orlando or Disneyland in Anaheim.  Congress bent the rules to give this 'protection' to Disney, even though there have been no recommendations from any national security agency suggesting such a measure.

Competitors say that the reason Disney wanted the no-fly zones is simply to stop advertising planes, sightseeing planes and helicopters from overflying their resorts.

Lastly this week, many years ago it was fashionable to compare the reliability of cars with the unreliability of computers.  Well, these days, cars are increasingly computers on wheels.  And, like any computer, their computers are not infallible.  Such was the experience of the Thailand Minister of Finance, when his BMW's computer failed.  The car stopped.  The doors and windows locked automatically, and the air conditioning switched off.  The Minister and his driver were stuck in the car for ten minutes, and becoming increasingly worried about suffocating, before security guards were able to smash through the windows and free them.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels.

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider
ps :  Don't forget to visit Joe Brancatelli's site for his weekly updates, too.

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